So the other day I did a diary on whether or no Punk is Right Wing, discussing a Johnny Ramone quote stating that it is. And I have to disagree. Punk is structurally leftwing- it's democratic, populist and anti-authoritarian. It naturally attracts left wing minds. And it has. A LOT. Left wing bands far outnumber right wing bands in both number and influence, which tends to push the overall feel of the music to the left, maybe more than any other genre. Punk music has covered left/liberal issues like environmentalism, gender, sexual orientation, class, consumerism, religious freedom from the beginning. Rather than trying to name them all, I just wanted to share some of the many left leaning punk bands, artists and songs that I like. And to try to explain why they matter. This is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to add your faves in the comments!
Aside from the MC5, most of the pre-1977 punk bands (The Ramones, The New York Dolls, The Dictators, The Stooges) were apolitical, instead focusing on more standard rock issues- namely, sex and drugs. The Clash, along with Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers, The Jam, began to write songs based on working class, leftist ideas.
I like to think of the Clash as the punk Beatles- their first two albums were fairly straightforward punk albums, with some reggae thrown in, but by their third, London Calling, they had expanded their musical sound to include jazz, rockabilly, soul. On their next album they even tried to rap. Emphasis on tried. In their defense, it was back in 1980, roughly a year after Rapper's Delight, and that song didn't age well either. But the point is they were always looking to find revolution, musical or otherwise, where it was happening.
This has always been my favorite song by them, though it's kind of funny that in 1977, the year punk broke in the UK, they were already saying this-
Punk rockers in the UK
They won't notice anyway
They're all too busy fighting
For a good place under the lighting
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money
Elton Motello- Jet Boy Jet Girl
Elton Motello was something of a punk one-hit wonder, but Jet Boy Jet Girl has a special place in punk history as one of the most well known punk standards, and the only one about being gay. Elton Motello was the stage name of Alan Ward, who may or may not have been gay; I've heard that he was, but I wasn't able to find any proof of that on the net.
This wasn't the first rock n roll song about being gay- glam rock had been talking about this for years already, but in a transparently attention seeking way by groups who were mostly straight. To my hetero ear, Jet Boy Jet Girl sounds like a real song about a real person. And it let all the punks know that being gay isn't something for wimps- it's punk rock. That said, I've always wondered to what degree this song is popular because people relate to it or because it's just fun and naughty to sing:
oooh hoo hoo hoo he gives me head
jet boy I'm gonna make em penetrate, I'm gonna make you be a girl
If the Clash were a band that would inspire The Revolution, Crass would be the band that the revolutionary army would march to. Crass are an acquired taste- abrasive, militaristic and gloomy. And it would be easy to hold them responsible for the legions of smelly, dreadlocked punks dressed all in black (I can say that- I was one of them!) playing deliberately awful sounding music (err, I was one of those too). Their songs, both musically and lyrically, are all out of order. How does a song about getting banned from the Roxy from trashing the place end up an extended rant on war crimes, class, the police state and societal pressure to confrom? I don't know, but it's beautiful and fucking satisfying:
Banned from the Roxy... O.K.
I never much liked playing there anyway.
They said they only wanted well behaved boys,
Do they think guitars and microphones are just fucking toys?
Poly Styrene was a message in herself- a biracial woman sporting an afro and braces- no one in rock n roll had ever looked or sounded like her.
X-Ray Spex put out one album in the 70's- Germfree Adolescents- that was mainly concerned with consumerism. It is a great, great album with Poly's ear-piercing vocals, buzzsaw guitars and some sexy saxophone. And every song is a catchy anthem with serious pop hooks. Probably the best known song it Oh Bondage Up Yours! I really can't explain how awesome X-Ray Spex were, so just check out the video, if you've never heard of them
The Dead Kennedys
You really can't talk about left wing bands without talking about the Dead Kennedys. To understand properly their place in the world of punk bands, let's imagine you're a teenage outcast. You start hanging with the "bad kids." They share bands with you- all the punk rock greats. Unlike other political bands, the Dead Kennedys are Americans, talking about American stuff. Maybe you're old enough to remember the horror of the Reagan years. Maybe you're a kid who's been harassed by the police for being a kid. Maybe the jocks beat you up at school. When you hear the Dead Kennedys, you know they're speaking to YOU. Sure, the Ramones share your pain of not getting girls, the Misfits share your obsession with creepy movies and Minor Threat and Black Flag share your anger and frustration. But if you want someone to help you make sense of it all, you turn to the Dead Kennedys.
The Dead Kennedys had a wicked sense of humor and were actually pretty good musicians. But I liked them best when Jello Biafra was off on one of his angry, paranoid freakouts
OK, so not everyone is going to agree that Chumbawamba should be included here. They started out as an anarcho-punk band ala Crass, before becoming one of the few anarchist pop bands. Probably the only successful one. Their first couple albums still had a punk edge to them but even their later pop albums are fun and irreverent. I know, they'll never live down having Tubthumping appear in Home Alone 2 ads, but I still respect them.
When Bikini Kill came on the scene, a lot of the older punks didn't like it. Women were invading what was primarily a male world. But unlike previous women punks, Bikini Kill brought friends. And Bikini Kill was raw and awesome in a way that no other band was at that time and more than any other band opened a space for women to be a part of punk rock.
That girl thinks she's the queen of the neighborhood
I got news for you! She is!
I still remember reading circa 1997 in Maximum RocknRoll that Fat Mike, singer of NOFX, had become a vegetarian. This was truly a WTF? moment for all of punk rock. NOFX, whose first album, Liberal Animation, was dedicated almost entirely to mocking vegetarians. NOFX, the skateboard jock band. NOFX, the band that was always poking fun at punk orthodoxy was joining the ranks of the orthodox. I've never loved NOFX- their songs can be incredibly fun and insightful or they can be incredibly juvenile. Their success has inspired more awful bands than anyone since Crass. But credit where credit is due- they are bringing the message to the "extreme sports" crowd" (and boy could some of them use it) and even organized Rock Against Bush. And I imagine it's cost them some fans. So here's to NOFX!
I never thought about the universe, it made me feel small
Never thought about the problems of this planet at all
Global warming, radio-active sites
Imperialistic wrongs and animal rights! No!
I don't want to be another "I-don't-care"-ican
What are we gonna do Franco, Franco Un-American
So there's some of the best of left wing punk. Who are your favorites?